Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Code on Arnold's Car

Title: Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?', By: Piwinski, David J., Explicator, 00144940, March 1, 1991, Vol. 49, Issue 3
Database: MLA International Bibliography

In interpreting the numbers 33, 19, 17, which are painted on the side of Arnold Friend's jalopy in Joyce Carol Oates's story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories [New York: Vanguard Press, 1970]), Mark Robson claims that there exists an allusion to Judges 19:17--the number 33 referring to the fact that "Judges is the thirty-third book from the end of the Old Testament" (Explicator 40 [summer 1982]: 59-60). Robson further maintains that, if one assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet according to a "simple numerical table," Friend's code also contains a cryptic reference to Genesis 19:17. Although I agree with C. Harold Hurley's response that Robson's biblical explication is "more ingenious than convincing" ("Cracking the Code in Oates's `Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' " Studies in Short Fiction 24 [winter 1987]: 62 66), I would offer a more probable scriptural allusion than the two suggested by Robson. And although Hurley's less-complicated, non-biblical interpretation of the numbers in the code--that their sum being sixty-nine indicates Friend's sexual perversity--is, in my opinion, quite consistent with Friend's character, I would suggest an explication giving a more exact accounting of the individual numbers.

A more likely Old Testament allusion than Judges 19:17 and Genesis 19:17 is to God's injunction to Abraham to leave his home in Haran for the promised Land of Canaan: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee" (Genesis 12:1, King James Version). Arnold Friend's seduction of Connie is filled with ironic echoes of this verse. For example, Friend coaxes Connie to flee her "daddy's house" (52) by playing on her estrangement from her family (". . . they don't know one thing about you and never did" [53]). In enticing her to leave her "father's house" and her "kindred," Friend promises to show Connie a special land: "We'll go out to a nice field, out in the country here where it smells so nice and it's sunny" (53). He tells her that in this special place, "I'll show you what love is like, what it does" (53). In effect, Friend is offering to take her to a "promised land," which will supposedly fulfill her previous romantic fantasies about love--in particular, "the way it was in movies and promised in songs" (39). However, this promised land, with its "vast sunlit reaches . . . behind [Friend] and on all sides of him" (54), which Connie sees as she leaves her "daddy's house" in the story's final paragraph, turns out to be cruelly ironic. Unlike the land "flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8) that Abraham's descendants came to associate with Canaan, Friend's promised land is an ominous one that Connie "did not recognize except to know that she was going to it" (54)--and one that, the story implies, she will likely become a part of after she is raped and killed.
Hurley's interpretation focuses exclusively on the sum of the numbers 33, 19, 17, not accounting for the significance of each individual number in Friend's secret code. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the code contains Friend's real age, the ages of two of his previous victims, and an elliptical numerical reference to his next victim--Connie, who happens to be 15 years old. That the first number could be Friend's true age is suggested by Connie's unsettling realization that, despite his impersonation of a teenager, he "wasn't a kid, he was much older--thirty, maybe more" (45). If 19 and 17 refer to the ages of the girls he has already seduced--and possibly raped and killed--then Oates may have had in mind three teenaged girls murdered in Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-1960s by an actual rapist-killer that, as Tom Quirk has convincingly established ("A Source for `Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' " Studies in Short Fiction 18 [fall 1981]: 413-19), Oates used as one of the models for Arnold Friend's character. The ages of those murdered girls--17, 15, and 13--form a decreasing progression of odd numbers. The numbers 19 and 17 in Friend's code begin a similar decreasing progression, with 15--Connie's age--being the next number in the series. Thus, Arnold Friend's code, in addition to revealing his sexual deviancy, contains a cryptic message that, when considered along with other ominous details, such as Friend's many satanic features and his putting his sign of "X" on Connie, further reinforces the impression of most readers that Connie is doomed.
--DAVID J. PIWINSKI, Herkimer County Community College

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